Freezing temperatures, thin air and hostile weather conditions all contribute to making rescue work in high-altitude environments particularly dangerous. Jason Laing, a helicopter pilot from New Zealand, has been helping climbers on the peaks of Mount Everest for over three years with his reliable H125 (formerly the AS350 B3e), one of only a handful of pilots conducting high-altitude rescue missions. In elevations above 18,000 feet (5,480 meters), above the Everest Base Camp, the slightest error can make flying a risky proposition for even the most experienced pilot.
Mount Everest: Home to the Most Challenging Environments
Mount Everest has been the destination of some 5,000 summit attempts. Climbers are confronted with an inventive range of problems, making preparations rigorous and ascents sometimes impossible; altitude sickness, frostbite, high-altitude edema in extreme terrain, and volatile weather conditions make the mountain a treacherous place to have a misstep. “Once you get altitude sickness there’s only one way – and that’s down,” says Laing.
2014 Everest Avalanche
Laing has been witness to the unforgiving nature of the mountain. The Khumbu Ice Fall is infamous as one of the most dangerous sections of the South Col Route, the most popular route to the summit. From plunging crevasses to shifting blocks of ice and avalanches, the ice fall is traversed on a series of aluminum ladders and ropes. It was here that the massive block of ice that jutted off the ice fall like a giant tooth snapped at 6:45 a.m. on the morning of April 18, 2014, rolling into a massive avalanche that killed 16 and injured 9. Later dubbed the “Everest Avalanche,” the day would prove to be the deadliest on the mountain at the time.
Long Line Rescues
Upon being alerted of the disaster, Laing rushed to the Simrik helipad where he quickly suited up with his Nepalese crewman, Chhiring Bhote. Bhote, however, was needed at the Everest Base Camp to assist in the rescue effort at the heli pad. Laing would have to fly alone. The H125 was outfitted with a 100-foot long line and the doors and extra seating had all been removed to decrease the load. Only Laing, his oxygen tank and long line equipment were left aboard.
Upon reaching the ice fall at 20,000 feet (6,090 meters), he lowered the line. Experienced climbers on the ground strapped their injured colleagues to a stretcher before Laing lifted them in the air and flew them to safety. In total, he single-handedly evacuated 4 injured sherpas and 12 victims, later receiving the Kumar Khadga Bickram Adventurous Award for his humanitarian contribution to the rescue. He was also awarded the Diploma for Outstanding Airmanship from the FAI.
“When working in the highest altitudes in the world, it’s best to have a product you can depend on. The H125 supported me all the way through,” Laing says.
Air Rescue in High-Altitude Environments
Helicopters are revolutionizing rescue work at high altitudes. Often in hard-to-access areas, on-the-ground medical evacuations are difficult and dangerous to perform, making helicopters a valuable asset to rescue workers. In these extreme conditions, the pilot and helicopter are both put to the test.
The weather is the first factor, which in the Himalayas, says Laing, is dangerously capricious and always shifting. “You must be constantly thinking that the weather is changing – not only in front of you but under you. Too early in the day and you have katabatic winds, the sinking winds that pull you downwards. Too late in the afternoon and there are anabatic winds, the upwinds that come with heavy cloud cover. Most days we’ve only got a small window of opportunity to undergo a successful high-altitude long line mission.”
The air is also treacherously thin, making oxygen management and load a major challenge. Without the aid of supplemental oxygen, most would perish within an hour if not previously acclimatized. “You can feel very vulnerable up there if there’s a problem.”
And then there are fuel logistics. Given the thinness of the air, less fuel can be transported. In the remote environment of the Himilayas, “the availability and access to fuel is more challenging. There’s a lot more planning involved.”
On top of all these factors, the rescue itself requires difficult decision-making. Upon reaching rescue sites at elevations of 22,000 feet (6,700 meters), Laing and his Nepalese crewman perform a series of performance checks. “At that point we both make a decision – whether he’s happy to go on the long line under the helicopter; it’s sometimes in a crevasse, it’s sometimes under an overhanging icefall – and whether I’m happy to place him in that position. It’s a collective decision that’s always at the very last minute under huge pressure.”
H125: A Record Breaker in High Altitudes
The H125 is known for its strong capabilities in high-altitude environments. A world record holder, in 2005 the H125 (then called the AS350 B3e) was recorded as completing the highest helicopter landing and takeoff at 29,035 feet (8,850 meters) on Mount Everest – a title it still holds today.
“High-altitude flying presents a very challenging environment, both physically and mentally. You have to stay cool under pressure. You can’t start thinking about the what if’s and need to just have faith in the helicopter.”